Fairfax schools' discipline policies up for review; parents seek more leniency

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 10:30 AM

There was alarm about middle-schoolers being questioned "for hours" without parents being notified. There were tears about high school years that might be derailed by a first disciplinary infraction. There was debate about what state law requires.

The Fairfax County school system heard from parents Saturday at its first meeting to gather public comment on discipline-related issues since the suicide of 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a well-liked football player at W.T. Woodson High School.

The suicide Jan. 20 set off a wave of concern about disciplinary practices in the state's largest school system. With a comprehensive review of discipline practices underway, two elected officials called the meeting at Falls Church High School, which was attended by about 50 parents, activists and elected officials.

The discussion filled the allotted couple of hours and grew charged and emotional at times.

Joyce Miller talked about her daughter's upcoming disciplinary hearing - and her worry that she would be ousted from Annandale High School and her social supports. "The fate of my daughter, while she made a very stupid mistake, is in the hands of these two people [hearing officers], potentially," she said.

Karen Curtin, a Parent Teacher Association president from Alexandria, said discipline issues hit home with parents in her middle school, where a recent incident led to 12-year-olds being questioned at length without their parents ever knowing there was a problem.

"This is very, very disturbing to me and others that I have spoken to," said Curtin, of Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School, where she said families have started to advise children not to consent to interviews until their parents are with them.

Policy changes debated

The meeting Saturday was convened by School Board member Sandra Evans (Mason District) and County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason).

Gross said she hoped county programs could be better used to help students in trouble, and Evans said she wanted community input as the School Board probes policy changes. That effort, which was launched Monday, is taking place at school board "work sessions" that do not allow public comment.

At the meeting Steve Stuban, whose son killed himself after being suspended, wiped tears from his eyes as he talked about how many days his only child was kept out of the classroom and how difficult and isolating the process was.

"You don't think about these things until you're captured in it," he said.

Nick's troubles started when he bought a capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects that was legal at the time but not allowed in school. His suspension, initially described as 10 days, went on for two months, and Nick was involuntarily transferred to another high school.

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